Review: Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (Ilya Somin)
This book is a quick read and covers the area decently well. The major drawback is that it doesnt discuss deliberative democracy or liquid democracy. IMO this book is not as good as Caplans recent book on the same topic which i also read. Maybe cuz i read his first.
many people conflate political ignorance with sheer “ stupidity.” 2
But often, ignorance is actually smart. Even highly intelligent voters
can rationally choose to devote little or no effort to acquiring political
knowledge. Indeed, political knowledge levels have stagnated over the
past several decades, despite the fact that IQ scores have risen enormously
during the same period.3
This error with the FLR effect is one that Somin continously makes thruout the book, so I will just address it once here.
The FLR effect is not g-loaded. It is like training effects. Training increases the IQ, but not g. Training does not make u smarter. It is a form of error introduced to the measurement.
However, it turns out that the decision to vote is rational so long as the
voter perceives a significant difference between candidates and cares even
slightly about the welfare of fellow citizens, as well as his or her own.15
A simple calculation suggests why this is true.16
Assume that Uv equals the expected utility of voting, Cv equals
the cost of voting, and D equals the expected difference in welfare per
person if the voter’s preferred candidate defeats her opponent. Let us
further assume that this is a presidential election in a nation with three
hundred million people, that the voter’s ballot has only a one in one
hundred million chance of being decisive, and that the voter values the
welfare of his fellow citizens an average of a thousand times less than
his ow n.17
The figure of one in one hundred million is used for ease of exposition.
Adopting the slightly more accurate figure of one in sixty million— the
average odds of decisiveness in the 2008 presidential election— would
not significantly alter the result.18
Thus, we get the following equation:
The Utility o f Voting
D*(300 million/1000) / (100 million) - Cv = Uv
Ive seen this argument before. It is surely wrong. The difference between the various political options is very small. Especially in the US. A decisive vote will change very, very little in these countries. Might change nothing.
This is one of those, works in theory under perfect conditions but not in real politics-arguments.
M ore realistically, the average citizen probably lacks the time and
expertise to study either the Gelman model or the alternatives. Unless
he or she finds the reading interesting or has an extensive background in
statistics, the costs o f doing the reading and analyzing the models would
be far greater than the expected benefits.2 Thus the rational citizen could
reasonably base his or her decisions on voting and acquiring political
information on a rough intuitive sense that the chance of decisiveness is
extremely low, but still higher than zero. And that is exactly what most
people actually seem to do.
No. If one actually asks a lot of people why they vote, and i did this, they dont give answers like that. Their answers come in two categories basically:
1) The Kantian Voting argument
2) The lost right to complain arguments
The first one goes simply: if everybody thought like that (about not voting), something very bad wud happen (i.e. democracy wud crash, or somesuch).
A moment's reflection will show that this is not good reasoning. Just swap ”voting” with ”become a firefighter”. In reality this is a matter of game theory. To the rational person, the fewer other ppl who vote, the more reason to vote, cuz his power is higher then. Ofc, if everybody was perfectly rational, they wud never admit to not voting if they wanted to vote. Why? The more people ppl believe that u vote, the less their own vote is worth, and hence it will make them less likely to vote, which increases the worth of ur vote. And so on.
2) I will let Carlin handle this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIraCchPDhk
Also, ppl sometimes claim that one has a duty to vote. I think duty ethics is garbage, but some countries do have compulsory laws: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_voting
Belief in many other political conspiracy theories is common as well,
including claims that the government is hiding evidence of visitation by
alien civilizations, claims that the AID S virus was deliberately manu
factured to target African Americans, and assertions that government
agencies planned the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and
other prominent political leaders.84
This reminds me of Gordon's very interesting paper: Gordon, Robert A. "Everyday life as an intelligence test: Effects of intelligence and intelligence context." Intelligence 24.1 (1997): 203-320.
He shows clearly that belief in conspirary theories correlates perfectly with group mean IQ.
Rational irrationality also deserves some of the blame. It is prob
ably no accident that Republicans are disproportionately susceptible to
birtherism, while Democrats are far more likely to endorse 9 /11 conspir
acy theories. It is no secret that partisan Republicans tend to be hostile
to Obama, while most partisan Democrats felt similarly about Bush.
These predispositions make partisans more willing to believe any claim
that reflects poorly on their political enemies— often without carefully
considering whether the claim is true or even plausible.
Such bias seems irrational if the partisans’ only goal is to get at the
truth, to determine whether the allegations against Bush or Obama are
accurate. But it is perfectly rational if their objective is at least partly to
enjoy the emotional satisfaction of being confirmed in their preexisting
views. After all, the partisan voter who mistakenly embraces birtherism
or 9 /11 conspiracy theories suffers no personal harm as a result, while
deriving at least some psychological benefit.
This kind of rational irrationality does not work. It implies the false thesis of voluntarism, namely that one can choose to believe things without evidence. This is not how beliefs work. One cannot just will oneself into believing something absurd. Rational irrationalism can work in that one can rationally decide that analyzing certain things properly and thoroly is not worth the time and hence relying on shortcuts instead, which are more error prone.
The ability of voters to punish large and obvious policy failures by
incumbents is one of the major advantages of democracy over dictator
ship. It probably helps explain the remarkable fact that no mass famine
has ever occurred in a modern democracy, no matter how poor.72 By
contrast, famines deliberately engineered by the government have often
occurred in dictatorships.73
Even generally ignorant and irrational voters can recognize a mass
famine when they see one, and are likely to hold political incumbents
responsible for it. Similar factors may explain the fact that democratic
governments rarely if ever engage in mass murder against their own
citizens, while many authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships do so
Somin has made these claims before. As for the famine one, it checks out. See Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_famines
The sources for 73-74 are:
73. Joseph S talin ’s com m unist governm ent deliberately engineered a fam ine th at
killed millions in the early 1930s U.S.S.R. See R ob ert Conquest, The H a rvest o f S o rro w
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). An even larger governm ent-created fam ine
occurred in M aoist China, tak in g an estim ated th irty m illion lives. See Jasper Becker,
H u n g ry G hosts: M a o ’s Secret F am ine (New York: H o lt, 1996).
74. Rudolph Rum m el, P o w er K ills : D em o cra cy as a M eth o d o f N o n v io le n ce (New
Brunswick: Transaction, 1997); Rudolph Rummel, Death by Governm ent(New Brunswick:
T ran sactio n, 1994)-
If the connection between two or more matters of public policy is
not obvious or is ignored by politicians and the media for their own rea
sons, voters may fail to pick it up. Social Security reform, for instance,
is almost never defined as a racial issue, yet the lower life expectancy
of blacks combined with the fact that they pay Social Security payroll
taxes at the same rate as whites turned Social Security into a major hid
den redistribution from black workers to white retirees.89 The subtlety
of the connection leads the relevant black issue public to ignore it. Such
problems might often prevent an issue public from ever forming to begin
with. Thanks in part to political ignorance, some potential issue publics
are likely to be numbered among Mancur Olson’s “ forgotten groups who
suffer in silence.” 90
This wud be true if africans and europeans contributed equally. They dont. Europeans earn much more money and thus pay much higher taxes.
In addition to alleviating knowledge problems by transferring decision
making power to foot voters, reductions in the size and complexity of
government might also reduce information problems with respect to
issues that still remain subject to the ballot box. The debate over voter
ignorance has focused on how much voters know but rarely on the ques
tion of how much government there is for them to know about. Yet it is
clear that the greater the size and scope of government, the more voters
have to know to control its policies through the ballot. As James Madison
put in Federalist62, “ [i]t w ill be of little avail to the people that the laws
are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that
they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” 94
Indeed. Also great quote.
Unfortunately, the lack of systematic survey evidence of political
knowledge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries makes it very
difficult to directly compare knowledge levels then to those that prevail
today. Yet we can get some idea through analysis of the sophistication of
political rhetoric directed at voters by politicians. Candidates and politi
cal office-holders have strong incentives to accurately gauge the level of
sophistication of their audience so as to make more effective campaign
Linguistic researchers at the YourDictionary.com website used the
Flesch-Kincaid scale to gauge the grade level of the language and phras
ing used in every presidential inaugural address from 1789 to 20 0 1.11
They found that every inaugural address prior to 1900 reached what
would today be considered a izth-grade level, except for one that scored
at 1 1 .5 .103 By contrast, inaugural addresses over the past fifty years have
been around a 7th- to 9th-grade level.104
Political scientist Elvin Lim documents a similar pattern in the evo
lution of presidential speeches over the past sixty years, concluding that
they have become increasingly simplistic.10'’ The same pattern emerges
from linguist Paul J J Payack’s content analysis of political debates. In
the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, D ouglas’s speeches rated an 1 1 .9
grade level, and Lincoln’s an 1 1 . z.106 Recent presidential debates tended
to fall somewhere between the 6th- and 9th grade-levels.107 The differ
ence is all the more striking in light of the much higher education levels
of modern voters compared to those of the nineteenth century.
Obviously, linguistic sophistication is not the same thing as substan
tive sophistication. It is theoretically possible that modern politicians are
simply making complex arguments using simple words. Nonetheless, lin
guistic complexity and substantive complexity do tend to be correlated.
To the extent that is true, it would seem that politicians are directing
much less sophisticated arguments at voters than did their predecessors
o f a century ago.
The source is this one: http://web.archive.org/web/20111111133224/http://www.yourdictionary.com/about/news038.html
The obvious hypothesis seems to be true: mass media made presidents lower the level, so as to target more ppl. Starting with radio and become worse with TV. At least, it cant get worse now, but we are also at rock bottom.
Empirical studies almost uniformly show that education and political
knowledge are highly correlated, even when controlling for other variables.7
Not surprisingly, those people with the highest education levels also tend
to have greater political knowledge. Unfortunately, however, there is a
major fly in the education-increases-knowledge ointment: massive rises in
education over the past fifty years have not led to significant increases in
political knowledge.8 From 1972 to 1994, average educational attainment
for Americans over the age of thirty grew from eleven years of schooling to
thirteen, while measured political knowledge remained roughly constant.9
On an education-adjusted basis, political knowledge may actually have
declined, with 1990s college graduates having knowledge levels comparable
to those of high school graduates in the 1940s.10 It is also noteworthy that
rising education levels have failed to increase political knowledge despite
the fact that measured intelligence has been rising, with IQ scores increas
ing substantially over the past century.11
The stagnation of political knowledge levels in the face of greatly
augmented educational attainment suggests that further raising of edu
cation levels cannot be counted on to increase political knowledge in the
The decline is surely due to opening up of education. High school in 1940 was more g selective than college is today in the US.
HS or more was about 24% in 1940, and college is about 32% now. Add to that all the lower g immigrants, it means that the college level is quite low now compared to HS in 1940.
Back then ”high school” actually meant just that.
An alternative but not mutually exclusive explanation is that edu
cation correlates with political knowledge in large part because it is a
proxy for intelligence. When IQ is controlled for, the correlation between
education and economic knowledge is sharply reduced, and intelligence
turns out to have the greater effect of the tw o .11 Political knowledge may
function similarly. Yet rising IQ scores over the last several decades have
also seemingly failed to increase political knowledge.
I was going to cite this study, but he did it himself. :)
its this one, by Caplan, his libertarian brother in arms.
Caplan, Bryan, and Stephen C. Miller. "Intelligence makes people think like economists: Evidence from the General Social Survey." Intelligence 38.6 (2010): 636-647.
Nonetheless, future technological breakthroughs might still signifi
cantly increase political learning through the media. This is particularly
likely if future technologies make it possible for people to assimilate
new information with less time and effort than is possible at present.
Rationally ignorant voters may continue to limit the resources they are
willing to devote to learning about politics. But more advanced informa
tion technology might make it possible for them to learn more without
devoting any more effort to the task than at present.74
Genetic engineering, gogogo! :)